John Jacobs is the Chief Information Officer of JE Dunn Construction, leads all Information Technology efforts and oversees integration of national operational processes. He continues to oversee the development of applications focused on operational and field efficiency, including mobile applications, intranet and internet portals, and database reporting tools. One of John’s main tasks is to drive technology efforts in the field to improve efficiency for all building partners.
- Background of John Jacobs.
- What does the CIO in a large construction company do?
- How do you get job sites connected?
- The real-time job site.
- Getting back to specialized technology.
- Barriers to construction technology adoption.
- What has COVID changed?
- Lightning round questions.
Note: JE Dunn is an investor in Homebase.
Blake Miller 0:01
Hey everybody, welcome back to the Future of Living podcast. I’m your host Blake Miller. Today we’ve got John Jacobs from JE Dunn Construction.
We talked about the future of construction and 5g and how it all plays out. Quick disclosure, JE Dunn Construction is one of the investors and Homebase.AI, the company that I run, but I do think you’ll enjoy this conversation. John, how are you? Welcome to the Future of Living podcast. How you been?
John Jacobs 0:27
Great doing well, as well as to be expected in crazy times today. But yeah, we’re doing good.
Blake Miller 0:32
I know, I know, we’re doing season three here, kind of in the throes of COVID. Here, I appreciate you taking the time to dive in. Why don’t you let everybody know kind of what got you to what you’re doing today. And what you guys are doing to literally build the future as well.
John Jacobs 0:49
Sure happy to do that, officially my roles Chief Information Officer. So get to lead IT been with JE Dunn for 25 years as of a month ago. So it’s been a long run but…
Blake Miller 1:00
Congrats on that.
John Jacobs 1:01
Thank you. Yeah it’s is pretty exciting. But around here, JE Dunn that’s, that’s frankly I’m kind of a one of the young guys because, you know, just look around, and they’ve been people that are here for 50, 60, 70 years, literally. So 25 is just a good job.
Blake Miller 1:18
Cool organization. Yeah, for sure.
John Jacobs 1:20
Yeah, pretty exciting. Um, but my background get here was was very non traditional. I’m an engineer by degree, went to the Navy after college, got to be on the the commissioning crew and aircraft carrier gets to see them build an aircraft carrier.
And then, and then got out and came to work for Dunn. And then was in project management operations for done building buildings for 15 years, both here and in Minneapolis. And then I was asked to lead a six company merger. So as we grew, we grew by acquisition. And so we we wanted to just make sure you have a single company experience. So we rewrote our SOP and best practices. And there was a whole lot of tech that went behind that. And that’s when the CEO said, I think I want a business guy running IT. And he asked, “would you take over the job of CIO?,” and I started laughing, and he didn’t, I went “oh, you’re serious.” So I, I still kind of call myself the least technical CIO are around. But now after, you know, being CIO for 10 years, so I’m not sure I still can claim that title. But I’m having a ball, I have an incredible team that can actually do pull off the tech when I have harebrained crazy ideas.
So that’s the road, I really do have the coolest job in the company, we’re having a ball, trying to innovate and change an industry that’s, frankly, not known for innovation.
Blake Miller 2:49
John Jacobs 2:49
So we’ve had some really good success doing that. And we’re, we’re really having some fun trying to pull that off.
Blake Miller 2:59
That’s very awesome. I love that background. And so a little bit of a little disclosure is obviously JE Dunn’s an investor Homebase, I wanted to kind of throw it out that throw that out there. And we put that in the show notes. But you know, one of the things that I really have loved about working with you guys is how innovative and kind of thought forward that you guys have been and I think a lot of is from a lot of weight. What you guys have done and Tim has done to kind of put this out there, what does it mean to be a CIO of a one of the largest construction companies in the US?
John Jacobs 3:28
Well, I think you have to balance two things. One, you have to earn the right to be innovative. So the blocking and tackling IT you have to be good at. And that’s not easy. So you have to be able to protect the business, cybersecurity what’s happened, even locally with you know, big, big company, cyber event is constantly a threat. And so you have to be good at that you have to expect it and do your best to prepare, then you also have to be able to manage and secure our data and have machines and just have all of the technology necessary for our people to be efficient. First, you do that, then you sort of earn the right to be innovative. And it also helps that I have a construction background. I think the team’s know that. At least I understand what goes on on a job site. And so once once we assure them that we’re gonna do our best to deliver world class IT then, then we get to innovate. And so then it’s right, how do we what business problems can we solve that that really can drive either value for our client or value internally where we can help our builders build better so so I think that’s it I think that’s sort of the the two pronged task is being good at blocking, tackling IT, earning the right to innovate and and then deliver on that promise of keeping an eye over the horizon of what’s coming and delivering something that adds real value.
Blake Miller 5:05
So you guys are definitely a leader in this space. And one of the things that definitely interests me and some of the things that we’ve been working on is your approach to getting the job site connected. Talk to me about kind of what you’re doing there. I know, you guys are kind of some of the first ones to be doing that. What does that mean to you guys? And that is it like, all the way up the towers everything’s connected, right, you know, as it gets cut as it gets built? Or how do you approach this?
John Jacobs 5:31
Yeah, that is a, it’s been, it’s been a decade of tackling that challenge, because it’s, it’s a challenge, even in a finished building with full fiber back Wi Fi. To do good communication, can you imagine an environment that’s exposed to the weather that has materials that are blocking signals, and that’s constantly moving like you don’t have permanent Wi Fi access points, you don’t have in many times access to wireless signal down inside a concrete frame or in a steel frame that’s blocking access to towers. So it has been a significant challenge. So we, and we work in a low margin industry. So I solve it with tech, but with expensive tech. And so do you really want to set up really expensive connectivity that it gets torn out? Doesn’t get used by the building in the long run? So we’ve taken the tact of make it easy, make it mobile, make it effective, so that the teams can can decide do they want to light up the whole job site? So that anybody anywhere can have an iPad and a, you know, mobile laptop to connect? Or do you want to light up kind of hotspots where you can walk to an area and connect? So then we balance connectivity, with offline capability? And are you working off of the latest information. So the so then you’ve got this huge amount of data that you got sync constantly…
Blake Miller 7:16
So you’re kind of alluding to what I was going to ask is what like, why is that so important? You know, a lot of people obviously, I mean, you guys have been using paper plans for years. You know, what’s, why is that so important now? And are things really changing that fast when you’re on the job site?
John Jacobs 7:34
Yeah, connectivity. There’s, there’s a fantastic story that that was the literally the foundation for what we call Dunn Dashboard. And that’s how we connect all of our teams. So every single JE Dunn on job site, has this incredible collaboration site, an extranet, basically a job website. They’re all templates, they’re all the same. But that’s where you get everything 2d, 3d, say in 2d plans, 3d immersive models, all of your content that you need to build. But that was born out of sitting in a trailer, I sat and watched myself in Colorado, a laboratory facility that was admittedly fast paced, things were changing. But because of the equipment that went in the building, there was new architectural design sheets being issued, on average, every eight minutes.
Blake Miller 8:24
John Jacobs 8:25
So how you can’t possibly you don’t have a chance. I mean, the trades don’t
Blake Miller 8:29
You’d have to be streaming. Right, like streaming from CAD or something.
John Jacobs 8:34
So I watched those guys take, there was a project engineer, having a progress meeting. And everyone that came to the progress meeting, handed him a USB stick. And he spent the whole meeting downloading plans, and then giving them their USB stick when they left. And that wasn’t good enough. And so that was where was what was born out of that was a SharePoint based collaboration solution where everybody through a secure access has access to the latest 2d and 3d drawings. So, so connectivities everything because if you’re moving at that pace, you’re gonna make a mistake. Not not, you know, not because you’re doing something wrong, but because it’s literally like the infrastructure for that piece of equipment changed, you know, 12 hours ago, and it took a while for that to get documents and so, so that’s why it’s just critical to us, lifeblood of, of the job is information and being able to deliver it anywhere.
Blake Miller 9:33
And it’s not just for safety, right? I mean, this is how you guys can kind of bring down the cost of overall construction that we all know is continuously blending and you said, you know, in a low margin business, right?
John Jacobs 9:44
Yeah, it’s so safety rides on the back of that from a communication standpoint, but it’s number one in what we do, right. I mean, literally, the culture at Dunn is, is we’re striving for perfection of everybody that comes to work goes home safe. So, so safety uses all of that communication. But now, can we do through IoT early warnings? Can we can we prevent some of the things that in the past have been, you know, the leading issues by using IoT, but IoT needs connectivity. Connectivity, in a on a job site that, you know, is hard to maintain is a challenge. So those are that’s a, it’s an uphill battle that we fight every day.
Blake Miller 10:32
Yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense. So something you say, kind of intriguing in our kind of prep for this was, you’re very intrigued by the disturbing kind of trajectory, away from the specialization in technology. Talk to me a little bit about what you meant by that. And really kind of like all these big tech vendors that are just kind of trying to gobble up, but you know, PropTech’s the hot word these days. You know, I’ve always laughed, like, you know, and I don’t want to put them all on the spot, but companies like Siemens, they were building automation system, but they don’t they just do an HVAC. And it doesn’t communicate with anything else. What is, where are you going with that?
John Jacobs 11:07
So it is a hot button for me. And I could, we could spend the rest of the podcast, so about six more talking about this. But there’s, there’s specific examples of the days when software vendors solve specific problems. And then they dove into that problem. And they created answers to those problems with software. And so they understood my business, they understood what problems I face, they understood what the problems on the job faced. And, and so scheduling software’s an easy one of their there was a dominant industry player, well, that software has grown into be basically an ERP. But, you know, ERP, for whatever, buddy, that doesn’t understand that. That’s our accounting and project management software. And so these big companies just keep acquiring more and more solutions to put into their suite of technology, we at Dunn have taken a different stance. So what we call Dunn Dashboard, that thing I was telling you about before, it’s a job site website, and and we spend the time on the back end, to integrate with all of the best in breed applications. And then we secure and manage the site and your identity. So I know who you are, and know what job you’re doing on the job. And then I give you all the information to help you do your job better. Well, I do that intentionally so that I can have best in breed tools for every single JE Dunn job consistently. That also allows me to, to minimize the training impact so that if you go from one job, you finish that you go to the next job, you don’t have to relearn a whole new suite of technology. So I think enterprise efficiency trumps individual efficiency. And so that’s why we’ve built this the way we do it. What I said in the prep was, companies keep adding and buying up all these small focused technology companies. And that’s a great they can offer an end to end solution. But when you’re at a company of JE Dunn’s size, do you know how hard it is to change enterprise tech, it’s almost impossible that you would bring the company to a screeching halt. So I’m not sure that breadth of offering is as important to me as the value proposition. What are you solving?
Blake Miller 13:39
So the digital transformation, right? Are you? How are you going to really dig in, that’s something we’ve, we’ve really learned very heavily. And you know, we’re coming at it from hitting so many different of the construction divisions, right? We’re access control, and you know, we hit lighting, we hit a low voltage, we had all these different things well, how do you Who do you talk to you you’re getting hit, you’re, you know, you’re talking with several different ones. We’re giving out a whole infrastructure in a way to, you know, manage the building and all that in there. But then who pays for it going forward? It’s the management companies and suddenly other things that they’re getting the value. So finding and fitting your value prop that really resonates with
John Jacobs 14:20
Your business is a perfect example. I mean, you know, how many of us at our house, I I’m the CIO, I’m supposed to have a smart house. So I’ve got, you know, a an August front door lock in a Nest thermostat and a WeMo light switch and none of them can talk. I mean, I got to have 17 apps on my phone to control it. And it’s left to me to figure out, I can’t do that a JE Dunn. I can’t expect all of the employees to understand every single application that they need and have them figure out how all those stitched together and come up with a solution. So that’s that’s our job in IT to build that cohesive suite of technologies. That they know is going to be best in breed, but is a single one stop shop, so that they have a chance to do their thing. I mean, right, they shouldn’t have to worry about the tech, they’re their builders. And so we want to enable them to do their job better. And so we got to take out that, you know, the siloed lack of continuity, that, uh, that is inherent with some technology.
Blake Miller 15:24
Yeah, what do you see some of the biggest barriers or things that are still preventing adoption, you know, beyond just kind of the the app, do it everything for you? What else is what else is preventing adoption there?
John Jacobs 15:39
Yeah, I think the number one thing for me is the complexity of what we do. So sort of the iPhone age where everything is just one app away from a solution. When you’re doing something as complex as commercial construction, it’s, it’s very difficult for it to be one button away. we’re striving for that. But it’s hard. I’ve heard it described, I’ve used this phrase before that construction companies are just accounting companies that happen to build buildings. So there’s a there’s a dollar, associated with every transaction we do, and and managing the time and money of every transaction is difficult and complex, the technology to do that is equally complex. So the solutions we deliver, we were trying hard to simplify them. That’s why we’ve done this cohesive suite of technology. But it’s still it’s still complex. It’s not just I’m opening my phone and looking for a photo app. You know, it’s a complex solution. And there’s a quote on my wall it’s a Bezos quote. And we talked a lot about innovation. But the quote is that “innovation is not disruptive, adoption is.” And so we can have the most innovative tech in the world for construction. But if our teams can adopt it, and don’t understand how to make it useful on the job, then it’s useless. It’s not disruptive…
Blake Miller 17:13
…back, you know, there’s nothing.
John Jacobs 17:15
Yeah. So so I think that the hindrance is adoption, and adoption is complexity. And so we’re, we’ve got some incredible tech. But how do we make that tech valuable? And adoptable, easy to comprehend, I think, is probably the biggest limitation.
Blake Miller 17:34
Makes so much sense. You know, I want to change gears a little bit. We’ve been talking a lot about technology and how you guys are implementing it, what you’re doing there, but you know, post COVID, everybody’s just in this whole new world, right? You have, how are you managing? How you leading? How are you doing all these different things? And everything’s kind of this great reset? What are some of the things that like, and talk to me about good leadership, you said that good leadership requires visibility, what are some of the things I think it goes into what we were just talking about, you know, visibility gives people context and understanding of why it’s valuable, and why they should contribute? What are you guys doing around here around now?
John Jacobs 18:11
One is just, you know, the video collaboration, we were pretty proud of the fact that the whole company went home nearly overnight without a hitch and had access to all their content. And then they could jump on teams and do video, collaboration. And firm for months. Truly, that worked really well. And so. So we had infrastructure that was already built, you can’t you know, in the in the heat of the battle, you don’t create infrastructure to support that. So we were proud that that was just basically a firefighter a test of our, our infrastructure, which the teams performed well, and, and so our leaders had to learn how to connect frequently through video chat, but everybody’s doing I mean, this is not that’s common to every single company in the country. Yeah. So I salute our teams and the fact that they’ve done that, well, here’s the thing. That’s a fallout as not just JE Dunn. I think this is probably companies everywhere. But I think it’s challenging our managers to have more visibility than what happens on a conference call. Right? One is analytics. So just how do you measure how productive your folks are being by themselves at their house? So you got to have that performance metric understood, and…
Blake Miller 19:30
No longer butts in seats. Right?
John Jacobs 19:32
Right, exactly. So that’s hard, man. That’s how you measure productivity is really gray. But here’s the thing that I didn’t expect. That has been a really interesting discussion. So when we would have meetings and I would announce something big or complex or hard or whatever, you could watch people and see how they responded. And then you could see where they kind of went so they would all cluster around a cube or you would see people that maybe walked away frustrated and so you you had visit ability in the nonverbal signals from the people you’re leading. Yeah. Now you do a Teams call. And you announce what you’re going to announce Any questions? nobody says anything. Click you hang up. And they don’t walk to a cube. They call somebody, but nobody sees it. Yeah, the managers don’t have visibility…
Blake Miller 20:19
Or on chat. Like that. Yeah…
John Jacobs 20:21
Yeah, exactly. And so in a crazy way, we have reduced visibility of our teams, not in the obvious way if they’re not sitting by you, but just watching their, their nonverbal feedback. So we’ve been having discussions internally about how do we do that? How do we do that better? How do we equip our managers to understand that as a challenge, and do different things to draw that out of people so that you can manage that? That concern? Fear, challenge frustration, that, that you just aren’t seeing? as much of?
Blake Miller 21:02
Yeah, I’ve seen that. I’ve definitely seen that too. And it’s just like, it’s, uh, even. Even knowing that people are getting things done. It’s hard to it’s just hard to balance that what you’re not what you don’t see what you wear, you know, how do you how do you help? How do you be around, you know, do those things, and sometimes it’s that FaceTime that really helps that?
John Jacobs 21:22
Blake Miller 21:24
So so you guys, obviously, you guys had job sites that were operating pretty much all the way through this? What did you guys do to implement safety for your team members, anybody who’s coming through partners, all of that?
John Jacobs 21:37
Yeah, I’m, I gotta tip my cap to the teams that we’re doing that within done. So our risk team, our safety team, our operators, all work together. And we were very early out of the gate being very consistent and diligent in publishing what our protocols were. So our screening protocols, the inevitable if when someone went positive, what do you do? How do you respond? How do you clean the site so that you can get people back? How did you maintain privacy, privacy of the individual have, you know, of the diagnosis and all of that. So we were consistent, we communicated. And, frankly, our connect our portal was constantly being updated with the latest and greatest from CDC guidelines. So that we were very consistent in our response, you know, over 300 jobs stayed active throughout. And, and they all follow the same plan, we actually had a competitor drive by our site and said, I’m driven by three sites today, they all look exactly the same for Jadon and my company, we just we don’t have the communication yet understand what the game plan should be. And you guys have already published it, and are following it job by job by job.
Blake Miller 22:54
Is that the thing? Is it just I mean, communication, is that the biggest thing you’d recommend to everybody that’s out there trying to kind of implement their new policies.
John Jacobs 23:01
Yeah, not not just communication, but communication in different media. So so you publish it, you know, in a written word, some people just want to sit and think about it and look at a document. Other people want to watch a video, other people want to be face to face and talk to people. So how you get that communication consistently in different forms. So as people learn differently, they can consume it and, and do their thing, because ultimately, it comes down to individuals, right, we can publish policies all day long. And we can say this is exactly how we want you to do it. But it’s going to succeed or fail with individuals, and how they receive that information. So so good communication leads to more effective response at the individual level.
Blake Miller 23:46
John, we’re almost out of time, and you’re almost out of the hot seat. But we always end everything with lightning round questions. And my favorite task everybody is what particular business or service is going to be completely obsolete in the next 10 years. Like in other words, who’s going to be Blockbuster, just selling apparel? You know, as a shell over them for ourselves?
John Jacobs 24:06
Such a good question. Um, I think I actually have two answers. One is technical of course from my check out to give you technology one, right. I’ve wonder if laptops will be gone. So think think Iron Man and Minority Report the ability to take information with you everywhere you don’t like, you know, the whole laptop logging insecurity, what I got to have access to my files, whatever. So fully immersive capability, like an augmented reality, HoloLens, contact lens, whatever would replace wouldn’t be great to not be strapped to your laptop. So we’re pretty close to that. There’s connectivity issues, but so I would say the laptop manufacturers, frankly, because you could compute in the cloud. So that that endpoint device…
Blake Miller 24:58
I got it. I got a new laptop. Stop recently and was able to, you know, spin everything up pretty quickly. Yeah, it’s like almost you just need to screen. I just needed that. As the interfaces change, I think. Definitely possibility. Yeah. All right. Number two.
John Jacobs 25:14
Yeah, this one that may be controversial. News in general. So in what’s happening in the world today, everything’s opinionated. All I’m getting is your opinion about the facts. But don’t we have AI that could hear and interpret verbal spoken word, all the text that’s printed? And give me actual facts about what the news is. So that like the true Walter Cronkite version we grew up with. Because it’s so filtered through the opinions that you’re being told and have facts and let me make the decision. So not only do I kind of predict that, I’m really kind of hoping for that, because I just want access to facts, not opinion.
Blake Miller 26:01
Yeah, I agree. I find myself having to read all different sides just to try to figure out somewhere where it’s triangulated.
John Jacobs 26:08
Blake Miller 26:09
Yeah. So you started to touch on this just a few minutes ago, but one particular device, or two kind of technology is gonna kind of reign supreme, it sounds like you started talking about augmented reality. Are you guys getting anything there?
John Jacobs 26:21
Yeah, we’ve got, we’ve got like 10 HoloLens full, immersive augmented reality devices out, we’ve got a couple of the new HoloLens, two developers versions that are out there. So fully immersive content is so powerful in the construction industry, we today have jobs, where you can see what’s in the floor or in the wall. So things were that used to be hidden where you didn’t know were like, we call them post tension cables. So concrete frames have rebar and then in some cases, these cables get tensions to a high pressure, well, you don’t want to drill a hole because you have to put a pipe through the floor and hit one of those cables, it’ll literally shoot out of the building. Well, now, we could put HoloLens on and see where that post tension cable is. So we used to need to bring in X ray machines to X ray this lab before you drilled. And so we’re testing the ability to use augmented reality. And we haven’t used it for PT cable yet, but we’ve laid out all the PTC, you can see it and now we’re sort of testing the accuracy. But imagine just being able to walk into a building under construction and see what should be put in place versus what is, sees unsafe things based on you know our standards. So yeah, we’re we’re investigating augmented reality, both in the immersive sense with the the HoloLens devices, the handhelds, just with your iPad and iPhone, where you just hold it up and do the same thing.
Blake Miller 27:59
That’s so cool. Yeah, we’ve been playing with that, too. We can leave kind of like sticky notes, basically. And in the ether, and when somebody shows up, they basically can you know, AR and see that it’s really cool. So we’ve been talking a lot about what technology is going to change in the future, what’s something that you think it’s just not going to change the future?
John Jacobs 28:19
Blake Miller 28:21
Will people still build buildings?
John Jacobs 28:23
I, of course, like buildings. Well, office buildings are being challenged right now, right, because everybody’s working from home. But of course, we need structures, we think, you know, we think places can inspire people. And so the buildings that we build, when we really understand what the client does, and what they want, we can deliver on what inspires them. But that’s got to be a people relationship. So as much as I’m in the tech side, you need to understand people’s needs before you can deliver some innovative tech solution. So so I think what’s not going to change is the need for people to interpret need before you deliver a solution, so we got so many things that are trying to interpret my voice listened to what I want, I’ve got something in the corner that’s willing to, you know, answer all of my questions.
But as valuable is that is that there’s still critical importance of relationships and people and being able to interpret need at a human level. And then innovative tech should deliver transformational solutions, like we should then be able to respond better. But I hope that doesn’t change where the relationship between you and I is first and then the technology is so
Blake Miller 29:50
Love that. So you know we got a lot of real estate developers and, and real estate people that listen to this. So any words of advice if they’re if they got buildings that are starting to come out of the ground, when should they be thinking about this kind of new future that we live in?
John Jacobs 30:05
Yeah, we have the ability, I just said people come first. So right relationship is first. But we have the ability to fully envision not only the building what it looks like, but the cost of the building with the materials, like, look like we can go so much faster if we you leverage innovative tools up front, and not make it sort of the cheapest bid environment, delivery of a facility, you know, similar to what you’re saying, if you think about smart technology first in your business, you can deliver an experience for people that live somewhere that’s better than if they hadn’t asked up front. But they have to know to ask for that. Right? They have to know that smart changes their experience? Well, it’s the same thing with us on a much, you know, sort of grander scale, that we can deliver smart technology that creates solutions that are that are incredible. The building can be smart, both from a performance standpoint, even from a health and well being standpoint. But you have to aim for that you have to know up front that that’s possible. And that just doesn’t happen. Sort of in a lowest bidder wins scenario.
Blake Miller 31:23
Definitely does that. And we and I think we all as operators and and folks that are developing solutions for that we definitely need to be thinking about how do we help these folks change their underwriting process to be able to kind of account for it all the way through because, you know, spending a little bit more upfront actually probably help you save a lot more in the long run, right? Definitely. John, this has been such an awesome conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day. Can you let everybody know how to find you online or connect with you?
John Jacobs 31:52
Sure. On Twitter, JohnjacobsJED and LinkedIn and JE Dunn’s got a LinkedIn page, Facebook page, all the traditional social media.
Blake Miller 32:03
Very cool. Make sure that’s in the show notes for you, john, thanks so much.
John Jacobs 32:07
Great. Thank you.
Future of Living is run by Homebase. Homebase brings the smart apartment experience to new build and retrofit multifamily with trusted technology that delivers intuitive building access control with smart locks, automation of property management, new revenue with property-wide WiFi, and IoT technology amenities residents enjoy. All completely installed and managed for the multifamily innovation leaders of this decade.